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After the round of talks held in December 2014 ended without any progress, another round of talks was held in Addis Ababa during the week of 26 January 2015. At a time when confidence over the prospect of success of the IGAD led peace process has become very low, mounting international frustration and new expectations converged for the convening of yet another round of talks that has ended on 2 February 2015.

Mounting international frustration

In an unprecedented development, China held ministerial level consultation on the South Sudan crisis in Khartoum, Sudan, on 12 January 2015. Convened in support of the IGAD mediation process and to put pressure on the warring parties, the special consultation produced a five-point agreement on pushing forward the peace process, including accelerating the formation of a transitional government.

In a statement issued on 23 January, the US, United Kingdom and Norway (the Troika) also expressed grave concern over the continued lack of progress in South Sudan peace negotiations.

New expectations

The various factions of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) signed a re-unification deal on 20 January 2015 in Arusha, Tanzania. The agreement, which is 12 pages long, commits the signatories to ‘expedite the conclusion of the peace agreement in order to end the war’.

The schedule of the AU Peace and Security Council to consider the report of the Commission of Inquiry on South Sudan, led by former Nigerian President Obasanjo, on 29 January added new impetus to the urgency of signing a peace deal.

What IGAD Planned  

IGAD made various preparations for the talks. It put together proposed options that the parties will use as the basis for negotiation on the major sticking points. The chief negotiators of the two warring camps were scheduled to arrive on 25 January. On 26 January, the two chief negotiators laid down the ground-work and prepared the agenda for direct negotiation between President Salva Kiir and his former deputy Reik Machar.

The leaders of the two warring factions started negotiations on 27 January and were expected to conclude in two days. IGAD scheduled yet another extraordinary summit of Heads of State and Government for 29 January, the eighth such summit level meeting since December 2013. This summit was called with two objectives in mind. First, it was meant to put pressure on the parties. Second, it was also expected to be a crowning moment for the signing of the peace deal.

Major sticking points for negotiation

Although the two sides have already agreed to jointly establish a national unity government, they remain divided over the details of the division of power in the transitional national unity government. When they came for the talks, there were at least three major sticking points between the two warring factions. The first is the nature and scope of division of executive power between the two sides. Although a new position of prime minister was proposed during the round of talks held in August 2014, the government subsequently rejected. The shape of the executive power during the transitional period was in contention. Most importantly, the main area of disagreement is the division of executive power between the two sides. The other is over the proposal for maintaining separate armies by the two sides for an agreed period of time. Finally, the use of federalism in the reorganization of the country is another major subject of disagreement between the two.

What actually happened

The first sign of lack of seriousness on the part of the two negotiating parties was the late arrival of opposition leader Machar for the talks. Significantly, defying all expectations the two sides showed little flexibility for compromise.

At the start of the talks, IGAD presented a compromise deal as basis for negotiation between the two sides. The proposal anticipated Kiir to retain his post and Machar to become the first vice president. In terms of division of executive power, the main issue of deep disagreement, IGAD, on the suggestion of office of PM Hailemariam of Ethiopia, proposed a 60-30-10 distribution of portfolios between the government, the SPLM-IO and others. While the proposed structure of the executive was not a subject of major disagreement, Kiir and Machar held talks for long hours over the distribution of executive power.

Despite the fact that militarily he was on the back foot, Machar insisted that there should be a 50-50 division of power between the government and SPLM-IO. Additionally, he demanded that the division of power should be reflected at all levels of the structure of government from the center all the way to the local structure.

The proposal for 80 % of votes for decision-making demanded by the opposition was received with strong opposition from the government. The government argued that such a very high threshold for decision-making was not only contrary to democratic principles of decision making by simple majority but it would also lead to gridlock that would paralyze the government.

The two days of intense negotiations between the two sides, first through their negotiating teams and later in direct talks between the leaders of the two sides failed to produce compromise. On 28 January, after long hours of talks Kiir was taken ill due to nose bleeding and the talks were pushed to the following day. As the two sides failed to reach at agreement, IGAD urged them to continue their negotiations until 31 January. With no breakthrough achieved in the talks, Kiir and Machar again held direct talks again with their negotiators on 31 January that lasted until 2 am the following morning.

The blames that go around

According to a senior official that I talked to on 31 January, Machar’s hardline position was meant that he doubted if the two sides would sign the power-sharing deal. When pressed on the reasons for Machar’s hardline position, he sates that he believes that he got encouragement from someone. In a conversation I had with a staff of the mediation team, it emerged that Machar received a commitment from President Kenyatta to support his demand for a 50-50 division of power between the government and his camp. As a shroud politician adept at manipulation and brinkmanship, this deal, although shrugged off as inconsequential by Kenyan delegation, offered Machar an ammunition for securing most favorable but unrealistic deal.

Another factor that contributed for the continuing stalemate is the recognition of the two sides that neither the region, nor the AU and the international community were ready to take punitive action. IGAD’s weaknesses continue to persist. Although IGAD succeeded in forestalling the spread of the conflict and played a role in keeping Sudan from taking active part in the conflict, it has not been able to secure the withdrawal of Ugandan forces. As it will be discussed further below, the indefinite postponement of the adoption and release of the report of the AU’s Commission of Inquiry also lifted one major instrument of pressure off the parties’ shoulders and hence lowering the cost of sustain the stalemate. The threat of sanction by the UN also remains still very far from being adopted.

The IGAD summit that never was

In the meantime, the IGAD summit that was planned for 29 January was rescheduled three times. First it was pushed from the morning to the afternoon of 29 January. When no agreement was reached between the parties by end of 29 January, it was postponed again for 31st. Three of IGAD leaders namely Al Bashir of Sudan, Museveni of Uganda and Muhamed of Somalia left for Addis upon the conclusion of the AU summit held on 30 and 31 January. IGAD was not lucky again and the summit was again pushed for 1st February until it was finally abandoned altogether.

AU PSC Summit – end of the Commission of Inquiry’s report?  

On 29 January the summit level meeting of the AU Peace and Security Council (PSC), expected to consider the report of the Commission of Inquiry, opted for deferring its consideration of the report at some unspecified time in the future. Despite the fact that the AU Commission formally notified member states of the PSC that the report would be considered and shared with member states, signs emerged very early in the week for putting the report on hold. Within the AU Commission, the Commissioner for Peace and Security and the office of the Chairperson started to advance the view that the adoption of the report in its existing format would completely derail the peace process. On 27 January, Dr Dlamini Zuma, AU Commission Chair held a meeting with the Chair of the Commission of Inquiry, former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo which ended with no understanding over the report. Ahead of the PSC summit, back stage consultations were also held with ministers of member states of the PSC to create consensus.

By the time the PSC summit was held in the evening of 29 January, consensus was reached for not considering the report. When the summit started, South Sudan was the first agenda item. IGAD Chair, PM Hailemariam made a statement on the peace process. Indicating the lack of coordination and clarity, President Conde of Guinea, who was chairing the session, gave the floor to President Obasanjo. Before Obasanjo made his remarks, Ethiopia’s PM Hailemariam proposed a motion to defer consideration and release of the report until ongoing peace talks were concluded. With the motion seconded by South Africa’s president Jacob Zuma followed by Uganda’s Museveni, it was the end of any discussion on report.

The decision adopted does not specify any time line for the consideration of the report. While the apparent determination of President Obasanjo for the adoption of the report offers a guarantee that the report will not be shelved indefinitely, when the report will see the light of day remains unknown. This is in part to be blamed on the lack of a well thought through strategy on how to ensure the buy-in of member states of the PSC and the full support of the AU Commission on the timeline and processes for the adoption and release of the report. It is true that the mandate of the Obasanjo panel is limited to the production of the report. But the objective of the Commission will not be achieved with the simple production of the report. It requires further political work of mobilizing political will for the adoption and release of the report. Such a plan is urgently needed if the value of the report is not to be reduced or lost.

Final outcome of the talks: no power sharing deal, but a deal for making a deal

During the final sessions of the talks Ethiopia’s PM Hailemariam and Kenya’s president Kenyatta joined Kiir and Machar to help them bridge their differences. None of the last minute efforts yielded the break through that IGAD and the region sought after.

But late at night on 1st February, the two sides agreed to sign a document on the issues that they have agreed to and making a commitment to continue talks after consultations with their respective constituencies on the outstanding issues on which they did not reach agreement.

The agreement envisages that a transitional government of national unity will be established no later than 9 July 2015. This is the time when Kiir’s current presidential term will run out.

On the question of division of power between the two sides, the agreement signed on 1st January only states that ‘ministerial portfolios shall be allocated amongst the parties to this agreement according to percentages to be negotiated’. With respect to decision-making, while it stipulates that decisions on procedural issues will be made by simple majority, it is silent on the formula decision-making for substantive issues.

There are a number of headings that don’t have content. One of such heading was on federalism.

The provisions on Justice, Accountability, Reconciliation and Healing were not also the same as those contained in the protocol of principles considered during the talks in August 2014. Unlike the protocol, this agreement does not make any reference to the AU Commission of Inquiry Report. But going further from the protocol, this agreement specifically outlined the mechanisms to be used for justice, accountability, reconciliation and dealing. It envisaged the establishment of a truth and reconciliation commission and an independent hybrid criminal court for investigating and prosecuting individuals carrying greatest responsibilities for violations of ‘international humanitarian law, and or applicable South Sudanese law, committed since December 15, 2013’.

What all this means

It emerges from the foregoing that the two sides showed little compromise but successfully played regional and international actors. In coming to Addis Ababa and holding for the first time direct negotiations between the leaders of the warring parties, they gave the impression of a determination to make a deal and thereby prompting regional powers to have the AU Commission of Inquiry report indefinitely put aside. No IGAD summit took place in the end.

There are reversals and very little gains. The momentum for making a deal is certainly gone down, if not totally lost. The role that the report of the AU Commission of Inquiry could play has been made uncertain. With its cancellation, the IGAD summit is made to continue to lose its force and authority and IGAD’s leverage further eroded.

After all that was said and done, there was no power-sharing deal. In the absence of such a deal, there is very little chance of the silencing of the guns.

Despite expectations, there is very little change in the peace process and in the South Sudan crisis before and after this last round of talks.

For sure, they have once again committed to the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement (CoHA) of 23 January 2014 and going even further they also agreed to actions to be taken against any party that breached the CoHA including at the level of the AU and the UN Security Council. Perhaps, fears of a full blow war that many continue to express with the end of the rainy season may not materialize. But as long as the parties feel that they are better off with the status quo and have nothing to lose and as long as the region remains indecisive and divided to change course and adopt punitive measures, there will be little surprise if it becomes deja vu all over again.

The IGAD peace process is clearly at the very end of its course. In recognition of this, the Chief Mediator Ambassador Seyoum Mesfin sated that the talks that the two sides agreed to have on 20 February would be final. It is IGAD’s expectation that the two sides will conclude negotiation and sign a deal by 5 March 2015 leading to the establishment of the transitional national unity government.

I wonder if anyone is holding his/her breath. As with many things in life, it is good to hope for the best and ( is even better to) prepare for the worst.